"Franklin Delano Roosevelt"
By Alan Brinkley
FDR At a time of crisis in the American economy, one critic of federal programs charges the administration with stumbling "into philosophies which lead to the surrender of freedom." It is a "false Liberalism that interprets itself into government dictation," poisoning "political equality" and "equality of opportunity." The policies pursed by the administration constitute "the road not to liberty but to less liberty." What is needed is the "release of the dynamic forces in initiative and enterprise" which "are alone the methods by which these solutions can be found and the purpose of American life assured."
What had so exercised this critic? The rescue of AIG, the financial sector, and the domestic auto industry? The health care bill that recently emerged triumphant by the narrowest of legislative margins? President Barack Obama's recess appointments? And just who was so exercised? The Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele? Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin? A libertarian activist? A tea party-er?
This time, President Obama is off the hook. The contemporary ring of the attack notwithstanding, this denunciation of liberalism and federal authority and celebration of free enterprise is over seventy-five years old. The critic was former President Herbert Hoover; the year 1934. And what so agitated him was President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. Just as Obama has his political enemies to the Right, so too did Roosevelt.
Along with Washington and Lincoln, political historian Alan Brinkley observes, Franklin Roosevelt remains for most Americans "part of the triumvirate of our greatest leaders." The only political figure to be elected president four times, FDR had his work cut out for him: he not only presided over the nation's most severe economic crisis ever but he successfully led the United States to victory in a bloody world war that threatened to extinguish democracy around the globe. His legacy during "dark and dangerous years" was "extraordinary," Brinkley reminds us. "No president since the nation's founding has done more to shape the character of American government."
Not surprisingly, then, FDR has attracted considerable attention from historians over the decades. From Arthur M. Schlesinger and James McGregor Burns in the 1950s to Conrad Black, Jean Edward Smith, and H.W. Brands in the early 21st century, the 32nd president has been the subject of numerous biographies, some multi-volume and many extremely long. For all of the thousands of pages -- tens of thousands, actually -- devoted to exploring his life, Roosevelt remains, Brinkley argues, an "enigmatic man" who has "defied the efforts of so many people who have hoped to understand him fully."
Brinkley, the former provost of Columbia University and a prominent historian of 20th century politics, is no stranger to Roosevelt and his age. His first book, 'Voices of Protest' (1982), highlighted FDR challengers Huey Long and Father Coughlin; his subsequent 'The End of Reform' (1995) untangled the economic and political philosophies of New Dealers who feared that the Great Depression might be permanent at a time when conservative opposition to reform was on the rise. And now, in his 'Franklin Delano Roosevelt,' Brinkley offers a refreshingly concise biography of the man behind the New Deal. Given its length -- 99 pages of text -- it cannot offer an in-depth examination of political ideology, the impact of specific New Deal programs (and there were many), or the human dimension of suffering in the Great Depression. What we get instead is a careful, balanced, and highly readable overview of Roosevelt's life and especially his political career.
FDR was born to considerable privilege in 1882. Growing up in a "world of extraordinary comfort, security, and serenity, but also one of reticence and reserve," he was educated at Groton, Harvard, and Columbia Law School. His marriage to cousin Eleanor Roosevelt produced six children, but the relationship turned formal and professional as a result of FDR's affair with his wife's social secretary. He entered state politics in New York in 1910, served for eight years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and ran unsuccessfully for Vice President in 1920. His subsequent contraction of polio threatened to derail any future political plans.
Despite some familial objections, he returned to politics by winning the New York governorship in 1928 and again in 1930. By then, the Great Depression was in full swing and President Herbert Hoover, who earlier had predicted an end to poverty in America, was widely reviled. Concealing his paralysis from the public (with the cooperation of the press), Roosevelt won the Democratic nomination for president in 1932 and handily beat his unpopular Republican opponent. Dealing with the deep depression now became his responsibility.
Recognizing that the "economy would not recover on its own," FDR admitted that "there is a duty on the part of government to do something about this." But do what? Like most historians writing about the New Deal, Brinkley acknowledges that FDR's programs followed no coherent philosophies. Roosevelt "had an actual aversion to deep ideological beliefs," he notes. Throughout his life "he sought politically pragmatic routes through the thickets of dogma surrounding him." Possessing only "vague ideas of what had caused the crisis," Roosevelt and his advisors had "no clear idea of how to fix it." So they experimented.
From 1933 through 1938, the New Deal covered a lot of varied ground. Some policies, resting on the belief that underconsumption prolonged the depression, aimed to increase consumers' purchasing power. Other policies, based on a conviction that overproduction reduced prices to dangerous lows, sought to restrict competition and output. Believing that the dole sapped individuals' spirits, Roosevelt sponsored vast work relief programs that kept Americans employed by building bridges and schools, painting murals and producing plays, and constructing fire trails and camps in parks. For his efforts, Roosevelt earned the hatred of various conservatives and the appreciation of many voters, who returned him to office in a landslide in 1936.
But the New Deal ground to a halt by the end of the 1930s. Some of Roosevelt's political wounds were self inflicted. His so-called Court Packing plan, designed to overcome the Supreme Court's hostility to many of his programs, backfired badly in 1936. The following year, he believed -- wrongly, as it turned out -- that the economy's partial recovery warranted major budget cuts; the result was the "Roosevelt Recession," which set back all positive economic indicators and inflicted considerable pain on workers and businesses alike. A conservative resurgence in the midterm election of 1938 guaranteed that the pace of subsequent reform would be glacial -- or nonexistent.
World War II, with its vast government spending on military goods, generated sufficient demand to accomplish what the New Deal had not: ending the Depression. Like his wartime predecessor Woodrow Wilson over two decades earlier, FDR turned away from domestic to international affairs. The final sections of Brinkley's short book focus on the war abroad and its impact at home, though Roosevelt's fingerprints on much policy in both realms is harder to discern than during the Depression years. When Roosevelt proposed in 1944 to go beyond the limited protections in the 1935 Social Security Act with a second Bill of Rights to "guarantee every citizen a living wage, decent housing, health care, and education," his plan came to naught. By the following year, the president, whose health had been declining steadily, was dead.
Brinkley's biography may be appreciative of FDR, but it is hardly uncritical. Among Roosevelt's failings were his inability to understand fully, much less solve, the Great Depression. He proved cool to calls for civil rights and, with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, he was implicated in "one of the greatest violations of civil liberties in American history."In his dealings with wartime ally Joseph Stalin, Roosevelt was too confident that the Soviet dictator "would cooperate in building a stable and consensual world order."
Despite these shortcomings, Brinkley finds far more to praise than criticize in FDR. Roosevelt "presented himself to the world as a beacon of confidence and optimism" in difficult times, he contends, and his domestic achievements "rank among the most important of any presidency in American history." Although he oversaw a dramatic expansion of federal power, Roosevelt did not do is what his critics charged: the New Deal "did not transform American capitalism in any fundamental way." That lesson may have been lost on Herbert Hoover, who remained hostile to the New Deal. But other Republicans ultimately headed it in the 1940s and 1950s as they came to accept the basic tenets of the New Deal. While it is far too soon to tell what President Obama's legacy will be, his economic policies to date, like those of Roosevelt's, have done much to stabilize the economic order, not transcend it. That simple point may hardly cool the passion of Tea Party-ers, who liken any expansion of the federal government's role in the economy -- or at least this president's expansion of the federal role -- to a diminution of liberty. Brinkley's judicious biography, alas, will likely not reassure them. But under the New Deal, liberty and the pursuit of security were hardly incompatible; nor were free enterprise, initiative, and government intervention in economic affairs. Three quarters of a century later, the same holds true under Obama's current reforms.
Eric Arnesen is professor of history at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.